- Historic Sites
The Ordeal of Plenty Horses
Caught between two cultures, a young Sioux sought to make himself a hero—by killing an army officer
December 1974 | Volume 26, Issue 1
For Plenty Horses the acculturation process had been particularly intense, for he had spent five years, from 1883 to 1888, as a pupil at the Indian boarding school at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. Here Captain Richard H. Pratt went about the task of converting Indians into white people with dedicated zeal. Teachers remembered Plenty Horses as a quiet student of average intelligence who made little progress during his five years at the school. Even so, when he returned to his home on the Rosebud Reservation, he was no longer an Indian. But as anyone could plainly see, he was not a white person either. Later he explained:
I found that the education I had received was of no benefit to me. There was no chance to get employment, nothing for me to do whereby I could earn my board and clothes, no opportunity to learn more and remain with the whites. It disheartened me and I went back to live as I had before going to school. To forget my school habits and English speech was an easy matter.
Once more Plenty Horses donned blanket and moccasins and wore his hair in long thick braids. But because he resembled the white man too much in other ways, his own people would not accept him fully. Like other Carlisle graduates who went back to the reservation, Plenty Horses lived miserably in a shadow world neither Indian nor white. His countenance and demeanor suggested a state of perpetual melancholy, both reflecting and containing the conflict within. Even among a people noted for stoicism Plenty Horses’ stoical character occasioned remark. He grew less and less confident in his command of English. When he used it at all, it was with evident labor and a fear of conveying unintended meaning. For young people thus confused and frustrated the Ghost Dance held a powerful attraction. Although apparently skeptical of the religion, Plenty Horses promptly threw in with the dancers and embraced their purposes.
Ned Casey struggled with no such problems of adjustment or identity. A graduate of West Point in 1873, he had served for almost two decades as an officer of the 2and Infantry. His low rank did not reflect his stature in the military community but rather the ponderous workings of the promotion system, which was controlled strictly by seniority. Genial, gregarious, well-liked, and respected, he was a superb soldier. “The sun will never shine upon a better,” declared artist Frederic Remington. Casey had demonstrated outstanding leadership as a field officer in the Sioux campaigns of 1877 and had won plaudits for gallantry in the Battle of Muddy Creek that May. Four years as a tactics instructor at West Point testified to his intellectual endowments and gave him a reputation as an expert tactician. Besides obvious abilities, Casey enjoyed excellent family connections. The Army’s infantry-tactics manual was written by his father, General Silas Casey, a distinguished veteran of the Mexican and Civil wars, and his brother, General Thomas Lincoln Casey, had headed the Army Corps of Engineers since 1888. With good reason Ned Casey, even though still a first lieutenant at forty, was widely regarded as a prospective general.
Lieutenant Casey’s most recent achievements were as an officer of Cheyenne Indian scouts. His station, Fort Keogh, Montana, stood near the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, and in 1889 he asked authority to enlist a scout troop from among the young men of the reservation. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs opposed the scheme as detrimental to government civilization programs, but Casey prevailed. The Cheyennes had ably served General Miles as scouts in the late 1870’s, and Casey had no difficulty attracting recruits. He gave them firm, conscientious, and sympathetic leadership sharpened by uncommon insight into Indian character. They repaid his solicitude with veneration and affectionately named him Big Nose. Quickly he molded them into an elite unit.
In the Pine Ridge operations of 1890–91 Casey’s scouts served creditably as a reconnaissance force. In the tense days following Wounded Knee they were attached to a cavalry squadron, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George B. Sanford, that occupied a position on White River near the mouth of White Clay Creek, about eight miles north of the “hostile” camp at No Water. Other units were deployed to the east and west. General Brooke supervised the White River line, while General Miles exercised overall command from Pine Ridge Agency. Casey’s scouts acted as Brooke’s eyes, keeping the Sioux village under observation and even meeting almost daily with warriors who slipped out to exchange news. On January 6, in fact, a half-dozen Sioux conferred with Lieutenant Casey himself. Their report of sentiment in the camp convinced him that he might further the cause of peace by personally talking with some of the Brulé and Oglala chiefs. With this in mind he set forth the next morning on the fatal ride up White Clay Creek.
Plenty Horses set forth that morning, too, his heart black with recent experiences. He had fled to the Bad Lands with Two Strike’s band following the appearance of soldiers at Rosebud and Pine Ridge in November. A month later he had come to Pine Ridge Agency after General Brooke’s patient diplomacy detached Two Strike’s people from the more fanatical followers of Short Bull and Kicking Bear. On December 29 Plenty Horses had heard the distant rumble of guns and hastened to Wounded Knee. “It was an awful sight,” he remembered. “The survivors told such a pitiful tale.”